• Emma Donovan has released a new album with The Putbacks (Supplied)Source: Supplied
Acclaimed singer-songwriter Emma Donovan is back with a new album called Crossover with Melbourne funk group, The Putbacks.
Rachael Hocking

8 Nov 2020 - 12:34 PM  UPDATED 8 Nov 2020 - 12:34 PM

Crossover, as the title suggests, represents a passing between moments in time.

Emma Donovan and The Putbacks last released music in 2014 - since then Emma has become a mother twice over, and lost her own.

The love and heartache she has experienced in the past six years has been poured into her latest piece of work with a group she describes as her “dream band”.

The Putbacks are no strangers to collaborating with blackfullas - their history performing with mob dates back to Black Arm Band hey days - and Emma says they created a “safe space” for her to share vulnerable stories from her life.

Beyond grappling with Emma’s memories of family and matriarchs, Crossover also offers what it’s hailing a ‘NAIDOC anthem’: the song Mob March.

Written prior to 2020, the song took on new meaning with the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement in June following the death in custody of George Floyd in the United States.

In her interview with NITV's Rachael Hocking, Emma talks about family, sharing her love of music with her two daughters and why our mob take to the streets.

Emma Donovan and the Putbacks

A lot has happened for you between Dawn and Crossover, how are you going and how's your life been?

Yeah. It's been a big learning thing for me I guess. I lost my mom the same year that I became a mom, but I had so much to draw on and so much to write about and celebrate too. I think that's the biggest thing that I've learned is how to celebrate life. Especially my mother's life. There's nothing more in that than honour and pride, and also what's to come of passing down all her beautiful morals and her strengths and that now to my little ones. So yeah, I'm proud when I talk about that and tell that story, hold back a little tear, but yeah, it's remembering all the good things and celebrating my future now with my girls.

And you talk about your girls with such love.

Yeah, I do. I'm happy that I've had my little ones there. I look at them and they're just a reflection of myself. They're into music. I'll try not to push them too much, but it's a Donovan thing, you're singing when you're six. No pressure. I'll try not to push them too much, but I'm looking forward to what I have to offer them, especially being in this industry and celebrating music and being a part of some really amazing festivals, they get to hang with me and see their mum sing.

And now you've got this beautiful piece of work that you've put together with the Putbacks. What has it been like trying to tell the story of the matriarchs in your family through music?

I think that's something that comes quite natural for me. I am a proud woman. I'm a proud Gumbaynggirr, Dunghutti woman and I've been raised by a single mum as well. I always acknowledged my dad, but I've been raised by my single, hardworking mom. I'm always looking at some of the stuff I write and I think about the freedom that I do have to write, but I also think of the safety that I have around writing and I suppose that collaboration with a band like the Putbacks - the Putbacks and I have had a few years together, a lot of the members that come from the Putbacks are artists that we travelled together with The Black Arm Band

This is my dream, being in the Putbacks. I can't think of anybody else that I want to write music with. And I just hope that we can produce a lot more albums together.

Emma Donovan and her mother

One of the stories that you've told, which has been slated as a NAIDOC anthem on this album, is the track Mob March. When you heard 'Always Was, Always Will Be', will be the theme for NAIDOC 2020, how did you feel?

For NAIDOC this year, I think it's very relevant for all our mobs - and a song like Mob March, it's talking about being on the street, but it's also talking about the new way that mob are protesting now and the way that mob are out there and taking our stories. I'm inspired by that, I'm inspired by the way that our people gather and not just our people, like everybody has been gathering for our voice.

I remember just writing some lyrics, but it was more to do with writing lyrics from that inspiration of mob that would take to the street and mob that would march, but also the crowds and the families that used to march. When I see all my friends that have been part of marches, they've been involved since they were little and been in a little pram - and I pictured that.

I had to write a song like Mob March because that was for our people.

Do you remember some of the anthems that you grew up listening to?

Yeah, I was having a listen back to some of the older stuff that my father would've played and also my involvement with Mission Songs [project] too and just to have a little bit more understanding about that and where songs were in the 1900s. Aboriginal people writing songs on the mission days.

Songs from Joey Geia. No Fixed Address with Bart Willoughby. For me, my eyes just go crazy because it's a big timeline of history and it's something that we can show through the music.

Pink Skirt is a really beautiful track from Crossover - and it's telling a story, but I wanted to know if you could tell us the backstory to it.

I always wanted to write a song about my grandmother. She had some really funny superstitions, I guess. She was the one that used to take us all fishing and when all the mob would get together fishing, it was because of Nan. So she had all these little remedies and little superstitions, I guess, but she had these funny, old rods and they were made from bamboo. Bamboo stick and a little bit of fishing line and cork. And it just bobbed a cork out in the water, because the lines are short you'd have to go halfway out in the river… she called them, her Ned Kelly rods [laughs].

She had all these funny things about things that you can't mention when you go fishing and things you got to do to burley that fish and everything. It was a big memory for my Nan. I think the song wrote itself.

Emma Donovan and her grandmother

And did you find the song was shaped by becoming a mother?

Yeah. And that's the other thing, there's so many things, all in going back to them morals and things that you want to pass down - to my daughter now from my Nan, from my mum and from me.

What's that responsibility like? Having to share things with your children on behalf of women who are no longer with us?

It's been pretty hard. I think the thing is for me, I was the oldest granddaughter and I've had lots of other cousins that didn't even meet our Nan but there's a thing in our culture or there's a way that we have - it doesn't matter if that one sister or cousin didn't meet Nan, they still got that connection and still get that love for Nan the same as I did.

And I think that's the thing about being a woman or matriarch in our family, whether they go on or not, it's what they’ve left behind.